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Context of 'December 12, 2002: Washington Post Story Falsely Claims Iraqis Gave Chemical Weapon to Al-Qaeda'

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Barton Gellman.Barton Gellman. [Source: Publicity photo via Washington Post]On December 12, 2002, the Washington Post publishes a front-page story by reporter Barton Gellman entitled “US Suspects Al-Qaeda Got Nerve Agent From Iraqis.” It states: “The Bush administration has received a credible report that Islamic extremists affiliated with al-Qaeda took possession of a chemical weapon in Iraq last month or late in October, according to two officials with firsthand knowledge of the report and its source. They said government analysts suspect that the transaction involved the nerve agent VX and that a courier managed to smuggle it overland through Turkey.” [Washington Post, 12/12/2002] The story proves so controversial that the Post’s ombudsman Michael Getler writes a column about in on December 22. Getler notes that, “[B]eginning with the second paragraph, which started out, ‘If the report proves true…’ the story contains an extraordinary array of flashing yellow lights.” He asks, “[W]hat, after all, is the use of this story that practically begs you not to put much credence in it? Why was it so prominently displayed, and why not wait until there was more certainty about the intelligence?” However, he says the Post stands by publishing the story. [Washington Post, 12/12/2002] Slate will comment in 2004, “[T]he Gellman scoop withered on the vine.… nobody advanced or refuted the story—not even Gellman.” Gellman will later admit that he should have run a follow-up story, if only to point out that no confirming evidence had come out. [Slate, 4/28/2004] He will later admit the story was incorrect. But he will continue to defend the story, claiming that “it was news even though it was clear that it was possible this report would turn out to be false.” [Washington Post, 8/12/2004]

Entity Tags: Al-Qaeda, Michael Getler, Barton Gellman

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Domestic Propaganda

Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler writes another mea culpa admitting the Post’s central role in promoting the Pentagon’s propaganda story of the Jessica Lynch capture and rescue (see April 1, 2003 and May 25, 2003). Getler writes that the issue is not Lynch, whose courage is unquestionable, but how the Post and other news providers are systematically manipulated by outside sources with their own agendas, and how these news outlets sometimes enthusiastically cooperate with such manipulation. The Lynch story as originally reported in the Post has been supplanted by a second, more thorough piece (see June 17, 2003) that Getler calls “a corrective to the initial reporting.” Getler notes that the “corrective” account does not address the more fundamental questions of why that first story “remain[ed] unchallenged for so long,” who provided the false information that generated that story, and why reporters simply accepted that account as fact instead of doing their own investigations. “The story had an odor to it almost from the beginning,” Getler writes, “and other news organizations blew holes in it well before the Post did, though not as authoritatively,” apparently referring to articles such as a May 4 piece by the Toronto Star (see May 4, 2003). Was the first version a government attempt to manipulate the news media? Getler asks. He also wants to know why Lynch’s fellow soldiers, including those captured and held as POWs (see October 24, 2003), have not spoken about Lynch. “Certainly, Lynch’s privacy about her ordeal needs to be protected,” he writes. “But the official curtain of silence has extended to everything about the incident from the start. Why?” Getler concludes: “This was the single most memorable story of the war, and it had huge propaganda value. It was false, but it didn’t get knocked down until it didn’t matter quite so much.” [Washington Post, 6/29/2003]

Entity Tags: Washington Post, Jessica Lynch, Michael Getler

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

The Washington Post prints an article by reporter Barton Gellman about the intelligence leaks from the White House that led to the outing of CIA official Valerie Plame Wilson. The article examines the question of whether Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, obstructed the FBI investigation into Plame Wilson’s exposure in order to protect Cheney. [Washington Post, 10/30/2005] According to journalist and blogger Joshua Micah Marshall, the Post deleted a key portion of Gellman’s story shortly after it appeared on the Post’s Web site (the edited version is what makes it into print). The deleted portion noted that on July 12, 2003, Cheney told Libby “to alert reporters of an attack launched that morning on [former ambassador Joseph] Wilson’s credibility by Fleischer, according to a well-placed source” (see July 12, 2003 and 3:20 a.m. July 12, 2003). [Joshua Micah Marshall, 10/30/2005] A criminal lawyer who blogs under the moniker “Anonymous Liberal” speculates that the Post may have removed the reference to Fleischer because Fleischer was a source for Post reporter Walter Pincus. Pincus is identified in Gellman’s article as receiving information from an unidentified White House source who, like Libby, attacked Wilson and implied that he was sent to Niger by his wife (see February 19, 2002, July 22, 2003, October 17, 2003, and July 20, 2005). [Anonymous Liberal, 10/30/2005]

Entity Tags: Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Barton Gellman, Ari Fleischer, “Anonymous Liberal”, Bush administration (43), Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Walter Pincus, Washington Post, Valerie Plame Wilson, Joshua Micah Marshall

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda, Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

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